IMU may return into politics only if and when the existing geopolitical parity in Central Asia is ruined
Recent arrests of Islamic militants in Kyrgyzstan, their clashes with the Pakistani army in Waziristan, and last month's statements of Tahir Yuldashev raise questions of viability of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) that threatened its home country throughout the 1990s.
Is there any future for the group that promotes the idea of an Islamic state in Central Asia? To answer this question, we'd better recall how it was established and who promoted this "brand" in the first place.
Finishing the job
IMU activist Abdulhai Yuldashev was arrested in southern Kyrgyzstan recently. Investigators believe Yuldashev participated in attacks on a Tajik border post and a Kyrgyz customs office on May 12, 2006. This scandalous action reputedly commemorated the tragic events in Andijan a year before. In search of the attackers, intelligence services of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan surprisingly coordinated their efforts. With Yuldashev detained, the list of the most wanted gunmen is down to three - two of them are Tajik nationals and one is a Kyrgyz.
It's hard to say at this point whether the attacks were authorized by IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev. Investigators suspect that the attacks were mounted for acquire weapons. Once they were obtained, the extremists would have crossed the border into Uzbekistan to carry out terrorist attacks.
Some experts assume that the attackers were entirely on their own. On the other hand, the attacks took place amid operations against the IMU (in all three ex-Soviet states in September 2006) that Yuldashev went public with threats to presidents of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In his speech delivered on an anniversary of 9/11 attacks, Yuldashev identified countries of the West, first the United States, as targets for his IMU.
In late January 2008, the IMU leader added Pakistani secret services to the list of targets when he urged the mujahedin to retaliate for the Red Mosque operation in Islamabad. Pakistani newspapers reported that the January statement was filmed in North Waziristan where Yuldashev and his men were fighting government forces. In other words, the IMU shifted its attention elsewhere and left Central Asia on the periphery of its focus. Busurmankul Tabaldiyev, Chairman of the National Security Service (currently, the State Committee for National Security) stated that "ringleaders of a terrorist organization preparing terrorist acts in Central Asia" were exterminated in three operations in southern Kyrgyzstan in the autumn of 2006. Reports on the latest arrests therefore indicate that Kyrgyz secret services are finishing the job started years ago.
Retaliation is unlikely. The political situation in the region is quite different from what it was in 1998 when the IMU brand appeared.
Conspiracies and alliances
Tajik army Colonel Mahmud Hudaiberdyev led a mutiny in northern Tajikistan on November 4, 1998. Events like that were not rare then. Hudaiberdyev and his brigade made several incursions to several Tajik regions, demanding that President Emomali Rakhmonov dismissed certain government officials. In November, however, the rebellious Colonel with his followers came from Uzbekistan. The insurrection never amounted to anything, but Dushanbe was badly frightened all the same. A year passed since the signing of the peace accord that put an end to the 1992-97 civil war. The opposition had a 30 per cent quota in the executive branch of the government. Its detachments - part of the regular army now - were ready to turn against the president and his inner circle. Waging a war on only one enemy (the United Tajik Opposition) during the war, Rakhmonov was forced to deal with former brothers-in-arms after the truce as well. Some of them, such as Hudaiberdyev, felt neglected in the distribution of spheres of influence.
And what could Rakhmonov do? A conference with his aides and advisers resulted in the decision to back Uzbek gunmen quartered in the Tavildara district, e.g. in the zone for which the opposition was responsible. That was how the IMU was born to mount a raid into Uzbekistan less than a year later, in the summer of 1999.
The story of Hudaiberdyev's insurrection and establishment of the IMU as a counterweight to the domestic opposition reveals the actual nature of the relations between Tashkent and Dushanbe. These relations are defined by political motives (eagerness of the bigger Uzbek state to outweigh its smaller neighbor) and by personal ambitions, resentments, and dreams of two politicians. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's opinion was decisive when Rakhmonov was elected Chairman of the Supreme Council of Tajikistan in 1992. (The institution of chairmanship was abolished, and Rakhmonov essentially became the head of state.) Instead of his protege's gratitude, Tashkent ended up dealing with the pro-Moscow Tajikistan. It was predictable. Russian leadership and the 201st Motorized Infantry Division stationed in Tajikistan were the only reliable guarantors of security of the new Tajik regime. All of that formed a triangle: Uzbekistan faced problems with Tajikistan when its relations with Russia were even more complicated.
The recognition of the danger posed by the Tajik conflict widened the gap between Russia and Uzbekistan. Military structure of the Commonwealth called the Collective Security Treaty was set up in the Uzbek capital.
Five years later, and the situation was wholly different. The Tajik problem was solved, but not the problem with Uzbek militants siding with the opposition. Needless to say, it disturbed Uzbekistan. All of its efforts to have Russia and Tajikistan to tackle the Islamists hiding in their mountainous retreats proved futile.
Uzbekistan reverted to diplomatic tricks. Open Victor Chernomyrdin was received with great pomp in Tashkent in late 1997. Received by Karimov himself, the visitor was told that Russia and Uzbekistan were facing a similar danger. Islamic gunmen in Chechnya were striving to split territorial integrity of Russia, Islamists in Tajik mountains were threatening Uzbekistan. Karimov suggested to cooperate. Official Moscow pretended to accept the idea. Very few in Moscow were aware of the dangers of religious extremism then, but everyone recognized the necessity to get Uzbekistan back to Russia's turf. In May 1998, Karimov was showered with honors during his state visit to Moscow. Boris Yeltsin and his Uzbek counterpart signed an agreement on a joint war on religious extremism. Once that was done, the presidents phoned Rakhmonov in Dushanbe with the news and an invitation to join. Rakhmonov could not really defy Russian President whom he addressed as "father of Tajiks" in private conversations. He had to subscribe to the agreement, even in absentia, and he did. The anti-Wahhabi alliance of the three states was established.
It never amounted to anything. Licking its wounds after the beating taken in Chechnya in 1996 and dreaming of retaliation, Moscow could not afford "the second front" in distant Tajikistan. As to Tajik leaders, they preferred not to start another clash with the opposition and Uzbek militants it included. It was when Hudaiberdyev turned up in Tajikistan, the man whose crushed insurrection had resulted in appearance of the IMU. The newly formed organization was ready to lash out.
And lash out it did. IMU militants led by Djuma Namangani raided Kyrgyzstan from Tajikistan in summer 1999. This campaign would later be called "the weird war" in Batken, the district where Namangani's forces amassed. Nothing prevented them from taking mountainous paths into Uzbekistan and carrying out what they had come to accomplish, namely seizing the Ferghana Valley. The Kyrgyz regular army turned out helpless in the face of the invaders. The Uzbek army in its turn had never been trained for warfare in the mountains and therefore lacked experience. In fact, even efforts to establish cooperation between commanders of the two national armies failed. All the same, the invaders kept to the Kyrgyz mountains, giving interviews and threatening the authorities of Uzbekistan. And that was it. This tactic was sound for frightening official Tashkent, but not in a bona fide war.
Tashkent was pursuing a markedly pro-Western policy then. Attending celebration of the 50th anniversary of NATO in May, Karimov pronounced Uzbekistan a GUAM member. (GUAM stood for Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, and alliance the Kremlin viewed as an alternative to the Russia-dominated CIS.) Uzbekistan suspended membership in the CIS Collective Security Treaty and essentially withdrew from the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization. All that happened in spring. In September, when the weird war was over and the raiders returned to their bases in Tajikistan, an Uzbek delegation rushed to Moscow to discuss military cooperation with Russia.
Military equipment failed to come from Russia. The following summer, IMU gunmen set out to organize terrorist acts in Uzbekistan. Needless to say, all of that affected Uzbek-Russian relations.
With relations with Russia souring, Tashkent emphasized contacts with the United States - particularly, military contacts. The Uzbek-US military cooperation peaked in autumn 2001 when Karimov and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield pronounced establishment of an U.S. air base in Karshi, southern Uzbekistan. In fact, the military operation in Afghanistan mounted in the wake of the terrorist acts in New York was probably the best thing that could happen to the president of Uzbekistan. The IMU backed by the Taliban militia had been amassing forces on the Afghan bank of the Amudarya in autumn 2001 to invade Uzbekistan. The counterterrorism coalition deployed its troops in Afghanistan and thwarted these plans. Namangani was killed in an air-raid. His supporters - whoever had survived - joined the Taliban.
Born of a conflict of interests of political elites, the IMU is a relic of the period that may be called "The Cold War in Central Asia.". Islamic radicals found themselves amid conspiracies, intrigues, mutinies, and terrorist attacks because they proved a convenient tool for various factions with geopolitical interests to promote. Surprisingly, the situation in Central Asia attracted Russia when the IMU was no longer in the spotlight. Of course, the tragic events in Andijan in May 2005 played their part too. The horrified Americans made their displeasure known and Tashkent promptly kicked them out by ordering the closedown of the air base. Meanwhile, the process of formation of a new security framework was already under way. Uzbekistan had joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2001, even before the Americans were allowed to establish their base in Karshi. An informal meeting between Presidents Putin and Karimov in Samarkand two years later revived the bilateral relations. The collective security framework was finally complete with Uzbekistan in the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Along with everything else, the U-turn in Tashkent's foreign policy happened due to the emergence of new radical organizations that filled the vacuum left by the IMU. First, the matter concerns Hizb-ut-Tahrir or Islamic Liberation Party, outlawed in Russia and Uzbekistan. Russia put Hizb-ut-Tahrir on the list of terrorist organizations in spring 2003, and the Russian-Uzbek relations took a major leap forward. In fact, the Kremlin even pulled some strings and had other countries of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization blacklist Hizb-ut-Tahrir. It may only be added that few in Russia or Central Asia as such (save for in Uzbekistan, of course) knew anything about this structure then.
Regional Counterterrorism Center of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization formed a common blacklist on Russia's initiative seconded by China. The Uzbek leadership had a cause to celebrate then – enemies of Uzbekistan became enemies of Tashkent's allies in the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
There is more to it than agreements among members of these two organizations. Uzbek secret services established direct contacts with their colleagues in these countries. These days, Tashkent may confidently expect to be able to lay its hands on every suspect even should the latter, for example, happen to be a citizen of Russia. Examples of this cooperation are too many to mention. Every extradition episode in the meantime stirs Russian and international human rights organizations. Needless to say, Uzbekistan cannot count on close cooperation with Western countries. It follows that Tashkent is unlikely to want to alter the security framework that suits it just fine for the sake of rapprochement with the West. Political U-turns like the one executed in 2001 are out of the question. Still, cooperation with the European Union and United States whenever it is in the interests of all involved parties will continue.
The Cold War in Central Asia is history, but somewhat less then cordial Tajik-Uzbek relations are its vestige. Wielding clout with both capitals, Moscow is bound to try and remedy that. It wants Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to let bygones be bygones because no initiative including Eurasian Economic Cooperation Organization will work without settlement of the old conflict.
Author: Sanobar Shermatova (Moscow) - journalist, member of the RIA-Novosti Expert Council. This piece was written exclusively for Ferghana.Ru news agency.